It has been more than a decade since R Kelly, the self-proclaimed King of R&B, last passed through London – time enough for his original fans to have grown up and stayed loyal despite the child-pornography charges (of which he was acquitted), which spent six years wending their way through court. The Lycra-and-bling-encrusted fans packing out the first of two UK dates have one thing in common: rose-coloured glasses that transform an average-looking 44-year-old with a small paunch into a prince among men.
"I was just too scared to get on a plane," he says, by way of explaining the 12-year gap since he last spread the love in the UK. How did he overcome his fear of flying? By realising that British women "deserve to see Kells, too". So here he is, sipping cognac and giving them what they want. "When you leave my room, you're gonna be walking bow-legged," he sings, and they howl. "If you wanna come back to my hotel, holler," he suggests, and they duly holler. You can only wonder how room service will cope.
His priapic self-belief is so complete that it turns 75 minutes of half-sung songs – he rarely gets further than a verse and a chorus before going on to the next one – into an absurdly entertaining set. His confidence stems from a talent that positions him as the Burt Bacharach of R&B: he is a masterly writer and producer, and works from the viewpoint that pop melodies and funk rhythms are not opposing forms. The dozen hits he revisits tonight, whether retro throwbacks such as When a Woman Loves (from his new album Love Letter) or club bangers such as Fiesta and Ignition, incorporate melody and beats in a way that will still be appreciated a decade from now, while the treacly balladry of I Believe I Can Fly is guaranteed years of extended life as an American Idol audition song.
The latter requires so much energy to belt out that Kelly has to sit down. Until this moment, his stamina has been remarkable: he is a performer who rarely stops moving, and frequently goes off on flights of a cappella improvisation, which is such a sweaty business that he peels off layers of clothes. But he is in fine voice tonight, and as scarf, jacket and sunglasses are tossed aside he does not miss a note.
Kelly is a terrible tease, and never makes good on his all-back-to-mine promise: after a churning version of Happy People, he leaves the stage without a word and the lights come on. But for a show that's all foreplay, it isn't bad.